The origins of "the Establishment": an etymological intrigue

Was the term really coined by the Spectator in 1955?

“The term ‘the Establishment,’ as it is now popularly used, was introduced into the common language and speech of England on September 23, 1955.” That is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The linguistic arbiter cites as its locus classicus a Spectator article written by the political journalist Henry Fairlie. The above quotation, however, was not weaned from the OED, but from Fairlie himself, writing in the New Yorker in 1968. The etymological memoir is simply entitled, “Evolution of a Term”.

Fairlie sets the scene:

In the week of September 23rd, there was only one possible subject for a political columnist to discuss: the acknowledgment by the Foreign Office of Burgess’s and Maclean’s defection. … As I sat in my room at 99 Gower Street, staring moodily at the blank piece of paper in my typewriter, the whole atmosphere of the Times during the days and months after the disappearance, the memory of hints and pressures to which I had paid only casual attention at the time, returned to me. I went and played a game of bar billiards at the Marlborough, the pub the Spectator used, and returned and wrote. I left in the evening, having turned in a column that appeared to me to be rather mediocre, but understandably so in the circumstances.

He ascribes the popularity of the term to the furious correspondence which followed. The term, he agrees, fulfilled a sorely felt need. The rest of the article deals with the proliferation of meaning that followed, particularly outside of Britain. Fairlie concedes that the term had existed in some form as long ago as 1841, when Ralph Waldo Emerson used it in “The Conservative”. It was bandied about for some years among his coterie, a group of “hungry young journalists, intent largely on enjoying ourselves at the expense of our elders and betters.” An occasional member of the group was the historian A J P Taylor, who “could be heard murmuring that he had used it some years earlier.”

“By October, 1957, in a special number of the Twentieth Century,” Fairlie notes, “Mr Taylor regarded the phrase with as much enthusiasm as if it were a bunch of sour grapes.”

He had every right. Here is the opening to Taylor’s article, retrieved this morning from the New Statesman archive, as it appeared on 29 August, 1953:

Trotsky tells how, when he first visited England, Lenin took him round London and, pointing out the sights, exclaimed: ‘That’s their Westminster Abbey! That’s their Houses of Parliament!’ Lenin was making a class, not a national, emphasis. By them he meant not the English, but the governing classes, the Establishment. And indeed in no other European country is the Establishment so clearly defined and so complacently secure. The Victorians spoke of the classes and the masses; and we still understand exactly what they meant. The Establishment talks with its own branded accent; eats different meals at different times; has its privileged system of education; its own religion, even, to a large extent, its own form of football. Nowhere else in Europe can you discover a man’s social position by exchanging a few words or breaking bread with him. The Establishment is enlightened; tolerant; even well-meaning. It has never been exclusive – drawing in recruits from outside, as soon as they are ready to conform to its standards and become respectable. There is nothing more agreeable in life than to make peace with the Establishment – and nothing more corrupting.

Sour grapes indeed.

In today’s New Statesman, Rafael Behr introduces a new definition of the Establishment. The dead-end bureaucracy which entrapped Joseph K today has “walls marked with Serco and Capita logos”. The guards wear “G4S uniforms.” Power no longer rests with visible institutions, in the settings they once did, he contends, but with the boards of companies very few of us have ever heard of, with quangos and hedge funds, arcane networks of friends and former ministerial advisors. “It no longer makes sense to speak of ‘the establishment’ as it did in the days when the lord chamberlain could strike obscenity off the stage.” As Messieurs Fairlie and Taylor would no doubt inform him, it never did.

A J P Taylor with Michael Foot on Taylor's 70th birthday in 1976. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496